Shalom Life | December 03, 2014

Shalom, Mali: A Jewish Culture Guide

Timbuktu's meshing of Muslim practice with Jewish identity is something that is unique to Mali, and continues today in the 21st century.

By: Sara Torvik

Published: October 28th, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

Shalom, Mali: A Jewish Culture Guide

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Mali


The past and present of the Jewish people in Mali centers around the city of Timbuktu. Many arrived in the West African country in the 14th century, fleeing persecution in Spain after the Spanish Inquisition, and migrated south to the Timbuktu area, which was at that time part of the Songhai Empire. Among them was the Kehath (Ka’ti) family, descended from Ismael Jan Kot Al-yahudi of Scheida, Morocco. Sons of this prominent family founded three villages that still exist near Timbuktu—Kirshamba, Haybomo, and Kongougara.

In 1492, the king Askia Muhammed came to power and the previously tolerant region of Timbuktu had become hostile to the Jewish community. The king declared that Jews must convert to Islam or leave; and shortly after, Judaism became illegal in Mali. Historian Leo Africanus is quoted as saying in 1526: "The king (Askia) is a declared enemy of the Jews. He will not allow any to live in the city. If he hears it said that a Berber merchant frequents them or does business with them, he confiscates his goods." Once this change had occurred, some Jews chose to stay and converted to Islam, but others fled the region entirely, feeling that it was no longer a safe place to call home.

Another notable Jewish family, The Kehaths, came from Southern Morocco in 1492 and converted to Islam, along with the rest of the non-Muslim population. Several others that arrived include the Cohens, descended from the Moroccan Islamicized Jewish trader El-Hadj Abd-al-Salam al Kuhin, who arrived in the Timbuktu area in the 18th century, and the Abana family, who came even later, in the first half of the 19th century.

Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour

In 1860, Rabbi Mordechai Abi Serour emigrated from Morocco with several Jews to attempt a trade of ostrich feathers and ivory in Timbuktu. The venture was unsuccessful and Rabbi Serour had to negotiate with the local authorities to obtain “protected people” status. The newly arrived congregation established a synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the area, a small victory, but by the time the early 20th century rolled around there were no Jews who remained in Mali.

Learn more about Judaism in Mali on the next page!

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